The Korea Herald


April event in Boston to mark Goryeo relic’s return: CHA official

By Choi Si-young

Published : March 4, 2024 - 15:03

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A Lamaistic reliquary from the 14th century is displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Hyemun) A Lamaistic reliquary from the 14th century is displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Hyemun)

A ceremony marking the return to South Korea of long-sought 14th-century Buddhist antiquities from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston will take place at the US museum sometime during the first week of April, according to an official at Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration on Monday.

Discussions are still underway on finalizing the date, the official added, saying the CHA chief might join a Buddhist monk expected to travel to Boston for the ceremony. The official declined to elaborate further.

The arrangement is a follow-up on an agreement last month between the MFA, Boston and the Korean side -- CHA officials and representatives from the Jogye Order, the Buddhist sect that once housed the relics. Called sarira, the relics are bead-shaped objects found among the cremated remains of Buddhist spiritual masters.

Spokespersons for the MFA, which first proposed the April date, and the Jogye Order declined to give details on the timeframe.

Karen Frascona, the MFA’s marketing and communications director, told The Korea Herald that the museum is waiting for confirmation of the April date it had proposed to the Jogye Order and the CHA.

“We are not able to say whether the paperwork will have been signed prior to or at the time of the ceremony,” Frascona said of the legal processes required to complete the transfer, calling the planned ceremony an entirely “religious one.” The museum prefers having all legal matters finalized ahead of the ceremony, she noted.

When exactly the sarira would return to Korea -- before or on the day of the April ceremony -- is also still under discussion, according to officials from the Jogye Order.

Meanwhile, the CHA official with knowledge of the April event added that efforts are underway to push for receiving the container containing the sarira on loan. The silver-gilt Lamaistic pagoda-shaped reliquary, representative of Goryeo-period Buddhist culture in the 14th century, might have come from Hoeamsa, a temple in South Korea, or Hwajangsa, a temple in North Korea, according to the MFA’s website.

“There is nothing in its history to indicate theft, looting or coercive transfer,” the MFA said of its acquisition from a dealer.

Talks over repatriating the sarira and reliquary took a fresh turn in early February, when officials from the MFA, the Jogye Order and the CHA met in person for the first time since 2009 and agreed on the sarira’s donation. Negotiations had been stalled since then as the museum was willing to “donate” only the sarira, considering their religious significance. The Korean government had sought the repatriation of both artifacts as a set.

Choi Eung-chon, the CHA chief, is currently negotiating the terms of potentially placing the reliquary on loan, as floated in the February gathering, according to the CHA official who discussed the April date. “The chief sent a letter to the MFA over the matter and we have their response,” the official added, without elaborating on what the loan entailed.